Wednesday, April 9, 2014

tidying up & goodbye for now

I think I am done blogging for now. I have deleted most of my entries - in fact I thought of deleting my blog altogether, but I remembered how many people encouraged and supported and were supported by various entries so decided to just weed out the low-hitters. As a result, this will remain as something of an archive of my most popular writing (though some are low-hitters I just wanted to keep around). Consequently some links will inevitably be broken, sorry if that proves to be annoying. Enjoy and thanks for sharing the ride, it's been great.

If you're curious, these are my top posts (some of them still surprise me), in order:

200th post!!
Is Feminism a Heresy? A Response
Parc des Rapides
The Doctor's Wife and the Importance of the Gray
hard lotion bars
a gentle goodbye
how to live well on one income
DIY Didymos

Monday, October 28, 2013

Is Feminism a Heresy? A Response.

Tony asked me very nicely to comment here in the blogsphere in response to this article. Here you go. My comments are in bold. As a little preview, the author attempts to argue that feminism is fundamentally about acting on a marxist-inspired critique of the natural family and that as such it is at odds with Christianity; I think the former premise is totally incorrect. Enjoy.

this is what a feminist looks like. taken by my son.

Is Feminism a Heresy?

The following essay first appeared in Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, ed., John Zmirak. It is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Some highly reputable Catholics call themselves “pro-life feminists,” and maintain that Feminism, if it could be purged of its attachment to abortion on demand, would be fundamentally good and compatible with the Faith.

Correct… because feminism is about fighting (drawing attention to, resisting, contemplating and weaving alternatives to) dominant misogynistic structures; it is not limited to any one issue, and embraces feminists of many different ethical perspectives, who believe in different theories of the origins of oppression, and with different motivations for identifying as “feminist”.

Test Yourself: Are You a Feminist?
… Nevertheless, most of us in the West have, often unwittingly, absorbed feminist premises that involve a wholesale re-evaluation of human nature and family life, and are in many respects incompatible with Christianity.
At its core, Feminism teaches that:

I object to this wording… please provide references to this nonexistent “Feminism” in whose mouth you are putting words if you want me to take you seriously…
  • Men and women tend to behave differently because of social conditioning, not because there are innate biological and psychological differences between them.
  • The chief reason women have been less often represented in the first ranks of public achievement in scholarship, the arts, politics, and war, is that in every human society of which we have evidence, throughout all of recorded history, they were repressed by a patriarchal power structure maintained through force and indoctrination.
  • Because large numbers of children in a family constitute both a barrier to the advancement of women and a threat to our ecology, small families should be the cultural norm.
  • It is unjust that the consequences of sexual behavior are biologically unequal for men and women. As much as possible, those consequences must be equalized through medical technology and reformed cultural attitudes.
  • To find meaning in their lives, women should look first to their careers, rather than to their role as lifegivers, culture bearers, nurturers, and educators of the next generation of human beings.
  • Women who regard themselves as mothers first are wasting their education and smothering their talents by staying home to raise their children.
I will simply say that not all feminists believe these things or consider them fundamental to their feminist worldview. The onus of proof is, I think, on the writer originally making the claim…

Our purpose here is not only to define Feminism but also to determine whether being a feminist is compatible with being a Christian. In any such assessment, an ideology must be judged by its “body count.” We need not argue political theory with proponents of National Socialism; we can simply point to the Holocaust.

Wrong. National Socialism, as a series or system of proposed truth-statements, can and must be judged on the truth value of its propositions. National Socialism would be wrong whether or not it had killed anybody. It is hard to take an author seriously when so early in her piece she apparently washes her hands of academic and human obligation to engage with truth and logic.

Feminism’s Marxist Roots

Where did feminists get the idea that family life needed a “revolution”? From those specialists in revolution, the Marxists (see Chapter 13). In his 1884 treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Karl Marx’s best friend and co-author, Frederich Engels, asserted that the “bourgeois” family with its division of labor—men working, women raising children—was one of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of a socialist society. Engels argued that this barrier should be dismantled by encouraging women to see themselves as an oppressed class, like exploited factory workers, who must engage in Marxist “class warfare” against their fathers and husbands. Of course, “class warfare” in the workplace has been condemned by numerous popes, including Leo XIII and Pius XI.[ii] Applying that socialist principle to the intimate relations of the family is even more destructive: women who accept such a principle cease to see the family as a unit joined by common goals, and instead feel morally justified in seeking their own selfish interests—at the expense not just of their husbands but of their children. If a woman’s own children can be her enemies, it is no wonder that feminists came to endorse first contraception and then abortion as central requirements for the progress of women in society.

I don’t think feminists need to feel, or generally even do feel, as though their husbands or partners are the enemy. I think generally that women who identify as feminists are likely to seek partners whose worldview is supportive; with whom a real and fruitful, mutually supportive partnership can be sustained. I do not feel oppressed by my husband. Further, in the age of contraception or NFP, depending on where you fall on the spectrum, generally educated women in stable partnerships conceive children intentionally. I do not perceive my son as an enemy; he is the light of my life, my greatest earthly blessing. I object to the phrase “seeking their own selfish interests” as such without it being qualified – painting women with a brush that makes the pursuit of their interests and passions seem ugly or sinful is not okay unless that brush is used equally for her husband and children, which it is not in this article. I do think NFP is a central requirement for the progress of women in society.

From Class Struggle to Contraception
It is true, as “pro-life feminists” like to say, that early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton accepted the belief, common in their era, that abortion is a barbaric crime committed by selfish men against women victims. Most nineteenth century suffragists thought that women voters, with their presumably nobler morality, would heal a world wounded by male selfishness. But their fundamental premise—that women were an oppressed social class, a “domestic proletariat”— eventually eroded the wholesome social principles they had inherited from a deeply Christian society (?). …

 A libertarian might suppose Feminism to be merely a strategy to give women more options, enabling those not called to motherhood to achieve other highly valued positions in society. Alas, no. For women who don’t embrace their agenda, feminists tend to advocate coercion instead of liberty. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the pioneering feminist work The Second Sex, admitted as much in 1975:
[A]s long as the family and the myth of the family and the myth of maternity and the maternal instinct are not destroyed, women will still be oppressed…. No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.[iv]

I suppose I should rouse myself from my irritation-turned-inertia to point out that not all feminists must or do believe that second wave feminist writers such as de Beauvoir were correct in their analysis and their proposals.  I think de Beauvoir was totally wrong… and I am not the only feminist who thinks so.

The Catholic Alternative
In contrast to the bleak vision of family life held by feminists, the Church has always taught that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society. Children are gifts from God, to be cherished in love and educated for life in Christ, and a just society must ensure that a mother has adequate means to stay home with her children, doing that irreplaceable work.

First of all, we see here the first strands of turning a very short period in history in a particular part of the world into “the ideal just Christian society”, which I don’t buy. We are pilgrims on this fallen earth, and there are many ways we can structure our socioeconomic lives that are compatible with Christ’s Lordship in our lives.

Because of this, as Leo XIII and Pius XI wrote with papal authority,[v] a working man has a right in justice to a living wage—that is, a salary that can support his family in decent comfort. Indeed, as Allan Carlson documents in The Family Way,[vi] by the end of the Second World War, most American employers—influenced by politically active Catholics close to Franklin Roosevelt— were paying “family wages”—that is, offering higher wages to married men with children than to single or childless employees. The practice prevailed widely until 1964, when it was outlawed as “sex discrimination” by the Civil Rights Act. Ironically, that otherwise valuable legislation stripped from every mother the basic right to be supported as she cares for her baby—and replaced it with the feminist objective of uniform pay for anonymous workers in factories or offices.

Well, like it or not, we live in a capitalistic meritocracy. I’m sure lots of anarcho-feminists would be happy to discuss how remuneration paradigms could be structured to meet family needs rather than structured around merit and productivity, but the latter is our reality and I don’t think it is sinful that such be the case. If your skill, experience and productivity only earn you a certain wage, you plan your family size according to that and/or get more training to beef up your wage-earning potential… that is not an unCatholic solution.

From Contraception to Abortion

Yet, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, many Catholics—consciously or not—had also accepted the feminist premise that women must be freed from the “burden” of frequent child-bearing to take their place alongside men as breadwinners.

It’s a reality that in a market economy you have to have flexibility and freedom to earn wages. That’s not a “feminist premise”. The position that women “must” pursue careers is a different one, which again is not shared by all feminists and must be evaluated on its own terms.

Single mothers with children make up the majority of the newly poor. Three generations of latch-key children have grown up neglected, emotionally stunted victims of fatherlessness and inadequate mothering, in a culture warped into moral confusion by perverse sex education, doctrinally empty religious instruction, coarsely sexualized television, and raw pornography online. For the first time in our history, married women are more likely to be employed than married men, and according to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau Report “Families and Living Arrangements,”[ix] only one woman in four with children under fifteen stays home to care for them.

 My only comment here is that I’m not sure why it’s relevant that “married women are more likely to be employed than married men”. Is that bad as such?

Was It Worth the Price?

Consistently, the popes have called the relationship between husband and wife one of equality in dignity and complementarity in function. Pope John Paul II was ridiculed when he cautioned men not to treat their wives as objects of lust, though what he advocated was the very mutuality feminists claim they seek.[xi]
Great. We Catholic feminists have no problem with that…

The sole advantage of living in a lawless time is that you can refuse to be a child of your age. Almost everyone in this workers’ society is too preoccupied with his own place on the treadmill to pay much attention to your eccentricities. What devastated our culture was the flight of mothers from their homes. Society is drowning in the consequences, but nothing prevents you and your family from living your lives differently. Our culture will never be restored until women again take up rearing their children as their chief and indispensable task—and men make the sacrifices needed to support them in that decision. While aggressive forces continue to push the nation toward family disintegration, a healthy resistance movement is awake and growing. It is made up of uncompromising religious believers, pro-lifers, and homeschoolers, both organized and autonomous, along with back-to-the-land agrarians and Tea Party independents. One Virginia women’s organization summed things up in a bumper sticker reading “Be Countercultural: Raise Your Own Kids.”.

Market economies are not universal in time and space. Nor is the relative anomaly of women “raising” their children in this particular extended view, in which staying at home to homeschool is perceived as the ideal. “In a survey of 186 cultures around the world, researchers found that older kids, rather than mothers or fathers or other adults, are the primary caretakers of young children… To be sure, infants until they are mobile at around one year of age, and often until they are weaned at two or three years of age, are the responsibility of mothers. But once those babies move into early childhood, again usually at one year of age, older children, usually siblings, are in charge” (Small, 2001, p. 28). Adults work, whether or not they are paid for it, and children do not need to be with their biological parents, much less their mothers, to learn and thrive. 

An appetite for achievement is built into human nature. If women choose to model their lives on the Valiant Woman of Proverbs (31:10-31) by raising and educating their children in a genuinely Christian environment, they will have to find ways to present them with a culture no longer found in society’s mainstream. This will be their most demanding, most absorbing, most gratifying task, requiring all their gifts, but eminently worth doing. Human imperfection always makes the future uncertain, but choosing freedom offers you and your family the best hope of finding joy in a deeply Catholic life.

Maybe… maybe not. Depends on how much you love your day job, how much money you make at work, the educational options in your area, how many children you have, whether or not you have local friends to spend time with during the day, whether you can afford paying for domestic help, etc… The Church has not at any time made the homeschooling lifestyle the ideal for Catholic families. Some families try homeschooling and hate it. There are no promises that it will be enjoyable, that it will use all of the mother’s gifts, that it will be gratifying or worth doing or any of it. Sometimes the right choice is to enjoy the career you love so you can pay for your kid to go to an awesome school, and enjoy good food and wine, be able to give to charity, share your gifts to the world, and have lots to talk about with your husband, whom you see as your partner. It sure works for me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

how to wean your toddler or preschooler

Phase one - preparation.

Preparing yourself:
Goals: Know why you are weaning, know that you are making a good choice, be sure to distinguish between the golden age you may become nostalgic for and the reality you are currently facing.

1. Know why you are weaning.
--> Review basic goal making advice, such as the SMART criteria - spend some time journalling or talking with a friend about what you hope to accomplish and why. Weaning takes work, and you need to have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to which you can look forward. Create a mental image or mini-narrative or keyword that sums up for you why you are weaning. If you are stuck, we come back to this shortly, in step three. If you don't actually want to wean, if you are still in a really happy place with your nursling but are feeling social pressure to wean, tell all the voices in your head to fly a kite. Get some good real life friends who are supportive. Be strong, be punk rock about it, be ready to quote the WHO at Thanksgiving when your auntie gives you crap. Read pro-breastfeeding blogs. If you are in a place where you do want to wean, the rest of this entry is for you.

2.. Know that you are making a good choice.
--> In attachment parenting and Catholic circles I developped a double sense of duty to make the best choices for my child. I love him, I want the best for him. There's the whole preferential option for the poor thing. And knowing how important and nourishing and sustaining my milk was, how it constantly shores up the child's immunological, hormonal, and nutritive resources, I didn't see how I could fully wean in good conscience. I came to realize that in parenting, excellence isn't making the best choices - it is making good choices. We must always choose the good, the true, and the beautiful - "best" needn't enter the picture. Attachment, excellence, holiness, yes, all through the good. You have been breastfeeding, that is good. You are now shifting to other nutrient-dense foods and teaching your child to eat well at the table - that too is good. Free from any guilt about not choosing "the best", you can move to step three.

3. Be sure to distinguish between the golden age you may become nostalgic for and the reality you are currently facing.
--> When weaning, your child will cry. He or she will be mad and confused and maybe scared. You will be tempted to give in. You will need to have a strong inner drive to persevere in gently teaching your child that your relationship is more than mommymilk, and you will need to keep in mind your goal (the pleasures and freedom of weaning) and be sure to not allow nostalgia to sway you. Visions of sweet golden afternoons of mutual naps and milk-love from long ago will dance through your head. If you give in, that experience won't come back; you'll instead have the reality (a kicking, or wiggling toddler, or discomfort because you're pregnant, or whatever the negative aspects of your current breastfeeding experience are that are motivating you to wean), and you'll have set yourself back further from your goal. So keep both firmly in mind: the pleasures you are looking forward to (better sleep for you and your child, better eating habits in your child, fitting into your old clothes, simpler routines, more time, new ways of relating to your child, whatever it is for you) as well as the negatives of your present situation that are wearing you down.

Preparing your child:
Goals: introduce the concept of weaning, be positive, let your child know what to expect.

1. Introduce the concept of weaning.
I like books - they are comforting, they give you a script to follow in a time when you may be feeling anxious or unsure, and they are a springboard to further discussion with your child. We used Nursies When The Sun Shines and Ready to Wean. We read them for a few days with no further discussion of how this would be applying to us, just to get used to the idea. Ready to Wean is particularly explicit about what weaning means. The artwork in Nursies is gorgeous, much nicer than RTW, so I liked that one better on that level, but Ambrose asked (and still asks) to read RTW more often. We would also pick up other books with photos of children (we like the Small World series) and talk about whether the kids in those books were weaned or not - most of them are! (The Bedtime book is particularly good to use, as none of the kids in the book are drinking mommymilk, and most of them are big weaned kids but we do see a few littler babies and one cosleeping duo, and because the sleep/nursing association and ritual is often the last one to go when weaning toddlers or preschoolers). This coincided for us with Ambrose's fascination with being a big kid, or a big man, or being old (however he feels at that moment); he wanted a big chair instead of his high chair, he wants to cut up his food himself, etc. He is enoying the conceptual division of the youth world into "babies" and "big kids". You can play into this without being baby-negative or shaming of your child's littleness in a straightforward way with question games - "Do babies wear underwear? Do babies eat pancakes? Do babies climb trees?"  focusing on things your child enjoys or takes for granted in his or her big-kid existence - make your child pleased to be a kid instead of a baby. Talking about how small babies drink only mommymilk, big babies drink milk and have some food, little kids have lots of food and a bit of milk, and kids of your child's age start to wean helps reinforce their understanding of weaning as a natural progression and of chronology in general.

2. Be positive.
Be positive both about your breastfeeding history and about the reality of weaning. On the evening of Ambrose's last nurse, while he enjoyed mommymilk, I narrated our breastfeeding relationship from the time of his birth up to the present, talking about how wonderful, comforting, and connecting breastfeeding had been for us, how much we both loved it, and about how we'll always remember it. I also had a breastfeeding album ready, which we looked at, and he likes to hear about the pictures (some are sweet, some are funny). You want to leave the whole experience on a sweet note. If weaning is going to be a long process for you, this will be an ongoing conversation - keep it positive. When talking about weaning, too, be positive: don't be apologetic, don't demonstrate regret or anxiety - own your choice, don't ramble and vent to your child about what you don't like about nursing, just keep it simple. If you are feeling conflicted, or like you don't have anything nice to say about weaning, return again to books. Positive talk takes practise. Find an adult to talk to if you want to unload in a peer way.

3. Let your child know what to expect.
Once you are ready to take a concrete step, whether it's limiting to four sessions a day, or night weaning, or total weaning, it's time to make things time-bound and measurable. After reading a weaning book one evening, inform your child that in three days' time (or whatever you choose), there will be no more mommymilk (at all, at bedtime, at night time, etc.). Talk about what you will do instead (if you still cosleep, you may inform your child that you will rock, pat, or talk to him/her; if your child is in his or her own bed, decide what kind of effort you will be willing to make in the first few days and in the longer term). If you are also transitioning to a new sleeping arrangement, talk about that as well. If your child will have access to water, mention that. (I don't recommend night fridge milk or night snacks.) Only get to this level of preparation when it is imminent and you are fully commited to carrying out that step.

Preparing your family:
Goals: Inform the other members of your family what is happening and what to expect, make sure you have support.

 1. Inform the other members of your family what is happening and what to expect.
 --> If you have other children, you might simply say "In three days I will be night weaning [your child]. He/she may cry at night. If you feel sleepy during the day I will let you take longer naps than usual. Once we've all adjusted we will all sleep better and I will have more energy for cooking/playing/park trips" - help your older children see, again, that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Your partner will ideally be with you at every step of the planning and executing process, but be sure to remind him of the exact night it will happen.

2. Make sure you have support.
--> If you are worried that your partner is going to complain at night, weaning will be harder on you. Invest some time in explaining your reflections, motivations and goal to make sure you're on the same page. If your partner is concerned about lack of sleep, offer him the couch. Remind him that you've already survived the newborn phase! Your partner, of course, cannot read your mind. Be specific: "I would love it if you showed your support by giving me back rubs the first three evenings of weaning and made me coffee in the morning and left me a love note in the fridge". Make your requests realistic and attainable but edifying. And don't forget the pot of gold: once weaning is over, you will have more energy for cooking favourite meals, giving massages, having great sex, etc.

Phase two - weaning.

There will be a lot of overlap between phases one and two if your weaning process is very gradual, so for the purposes of this section I will assume the weaning process is more drastic (night weaning or total weaning).

Goals: Stick to your plan, help your child name his or her emotions, create new comfort routines.

1. Stick to your plan.
--> The time has come! You didn't nurse tonight! Your child will be mad and will cry. Do the comforting things you'd discussed with your child. Make sure you have on a tshirt or hoodie that has no sneaky boob access. Make sure you choose a week that you can manage with a bit less sleep than usual - we chose the week he was on vacation from preschool, as I knew that if I was worried he would be cranky at preschool I wouldn't be as strong in sticking to the plan. Your child will eventually sleep. Do note that because your child will be waking up more fully than usual, he or she may have to pee before going back to sleep.

2. Help your child name his or her emotions.
--> Empower your child with language: "You are mad. You are disappointed. You miss mommymilk. You are frustrated. You are worried that I'm mad at you. You are wondering if something is wrong. You're concerned that I don't love you. You feel sad. You're sleepy and that makes it even harder to cope with being sad/angry." Let your child nod, or say no, and cry, and be with him or her.

3. Create new comfort routines.
--> The first couple of nights will be the hardest. There will be crying, though maybe less than you expect. Your nervousness will make it hard. Hold, rock, and snuggle your child. Don't do too much talking; you want to keep things dark and quiet to get him or her back to sleep. Once your child gets the hang of being weaned, and is calm and receptive to hanging out with you sans milk, he or she may be open to new kinds of bonding and affection. If you haven't been a rough housing parent before, maybe now's the time to do some tumbling and tossing on the bed (not right before bedtime!). At bedtime, massages are a favourite. Ambrose was never into massages before weaning, and now requests them often at night, in three varieties: little (light finger strokes), big (flat hand strokes), and muscle (a gentle muscle massage, usually on his back). Snuggling, tickling, hugs, kisses, and babywearing all have their place during the day. Reading books in your lap at bedtime is a nice way to get some cuddles.

Phase three - maintenence.

Milk production
Takes variable times to dry up. With daily sage tea, it took me a week from Ambrose's last nursing to pass through being painfully engorged, to generally full and a bit leaky, to finally feeling empty (no more leaking). It took maybe another week for my bust size to get back to its nonlactating state. Use nursing pads. If you suspect plugged ducts, try cabbage leaves. The hormonal shift from lactating to not lactating may make you emotional, or cause acne, or other stuff like that - totally normal.

Fine dining
Invest in making a meal plan for at least a couple of weeks from the time you choose to wean. This will help you when you are tired and would otherwise end up serving crackers for dinner. Choosing balanced, nutrient-dense, delicious meals makes everybody happy and reinforces the weaning continuum - weaning is about your child's education in fine dining as a key to the good life. It's not elitist to insist on eating well - it is accessible, and essential, to everybody - set a beautiful table, light candles at supper, sit together to eat with no distractions, eat protein and lots of colours, laugh at the table, enjoy tiny mouthfuls of sweetness afterward. Linger at the table. The table should be the center of your family's life, it should be your anchor. You will get great peace from knowing that your child has had a nourishing supper, body and soul, and you won't be worried that you are starving your precious baby by not nursing when he or she wakes up at night.

Further reading
- Sleep, Changing Patterns in the Family Bed by Dr. Jay Gordon
- Kellymom on Weaning
- Natural Parents Network +weaning
- As a note, I don't recommend How Weaning Happens by LLL. It's really not about how to gently wean so much as it is about why you should let your child self-wean. If you want support in that decision, it's great. On the other hand...
- Funnily, Breastfeeding Older Children may be a good choice for you if you'd been comitted to child-led weaning but are starting to suspect that your little angel may not self-wean at the pace you'd been hoping - realizing how many children do in fact nurse past three and four made me realize I needed to create some kind of plan to get things moving at a pace I was happy with.
- The No-Cry Sleep Solution is of course a classic on sleep, and includes tips on how to be aware of and break the milk/sleep association.
- French Kids Eat Everything is a great read on making the pleasures of the table the cornerstone of your family's life and instilling good eating habits for life in your kids. See my recent review here.

Enjoying your success
Buy some turtlenecks! Or some highnecked dresses! Let your partner put the baby to bed! Sleep all night long! Dance with your baby! Buy new bras! Enjoy watching your child rock his baby instead of nursing her! You did it, lady! Enjoy the new season of motherhood!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Doctor's Wife, and the importance of the gray

I had meant to follow up on this book after having mentioned it being on my reading list in this post, but since I spend little time on the computer in nice weather, and I hate blogging on the ipad, it was forgotten till this morning. I logged onto goodreads on the ipad to rate Romancing Miss Bronte (which was just so delightful and absorbing that I wanted to make an effort in its favour, though I rarely log on to goodreads), and after that was done, I knew there was some other exceptional book I'd wanted to rate and possibly review. It took me a few moments to remember the title, as I returned it promptly to the library, but managed to find it and give it the five stars it deserves.

Out of curiosity, I scanned the reviews, and I found one negative one in particular quite appalling. Allow me to quote: "...I found this book nothing but trash. I found it to be very pro-choice and liberal, with Republicans potrayed as rude, ridiculous, religious bigots, and pro-life people portrayed as crazy and violent. The entire book is simply distateful; while the writing is well done, it is clear this author has an agenda (pro-choice), and the plot itself serves only to reiterate this purpose. ... Maybe it warrants a half star for decent writing, however even if you agree with the blatant politics (which are outrighly offensive to probably half the population, that is, anyone anywhere right of pro-choice and liberalism) displayed in this book, the story itself is deeply disturbing with nothing redeeming whatsoever. I cannot recommend this book to anyone [edited for spelling]."

Holy good God, I couldn't disagree more, and I said so! After skimming the review's other comments, I posted this:

I have to completely disagree. I think it's incredibly narrow to judge the book's quality by the type of pro-lifers written - and violent pro-lifers do exist, they are not an invention of the author, so why would you object to that being covered? You also neglected to mention the more moderate pro-lifer in the book - the doctor's son, who objects very strongly to his father's activities!
I personally do not support abortion in any way, and I helped start a pro-life group at my university. However, I found this whole novel extremely compelling. To my mind, the crux of what the author accomplishes here is laid out in the scene where Simon is subbing for Annie's English class - he tells the class that black and white are easy to deal with and feel self-satisfied about, but the real substance and beauty is always in the gray, which he encourages the students to explore. To my mind, this is the summary of the author's intentions with this book. We see that with the issue of abortion, obviously - even the doctor says he does not know whether it is right or wrong, only that it is necessary. And as a reader, I found myself very sympathetic to him and his patients - people truly live in appalling circumstances. The pro-life movement can be very superficial in the way we portray pregnancy and parenthood. It doesn't make abortion right, but these are valid criticisms.
The other way we see the whole gray area thing play out is with Simon. At the start of the novel, you are sympathetic with Lydia, and believe Simon must be horribly abusive. By the end you realize she's mentally ill, and Simon is not a black-and-white caricature of a Bad Person, but a complex, smart, charming, selfish, tender, ridiculous, gray human being, like all of us.
The author's approach is to lay first impressions susceptible to easy, rash judgement, and then slowly, before the reader quite knows what's happening, change the center of gravity in the characters and moral tensions, revealing to the reader the importance of, once again, bravely dwelling in the gray area, where we have to see people and their struggles as they are, rather than as we want them to be for the sake of fitting into our neat, tidy algorithms. To condemn the book and ignore this extremely gracefully-handled project is small and unfortunate - read it again. Dwell in the gray. 

Of course, I shouldn't have to first define myself as pro-life, my views on abortion are irrelevant to my ability to critique the book and stretch the reviewer's understanding of the novel, but the point is that for people dwelling in the easy, comforting world of black-and-white, we do sometimes have to label ourselves in ways that are reassuring and comforting to them to get them to lower their defenses and just listen. I don't know how to not sound condescending in this point, truly I don't.

As a religious person, of course, I do have beliefs about ontology and ethics that I believe to be objectively, universally true. I am not one to say that we need to move away from the black-and-white of empiricism, ethics and doctrine into the great gray light of philosophical relativism - rather, this whole orientation pertains primarily to the way we relate to fellow human beings. Do we see them as made in the image and likeness of God, works in progress, open-ended, fascinating, complex individuals in need of love, mercy and dignity, or do we see them as aggregates of habits and beliefs that can be screened for unsavoury varieties ("I don't talk to Democrats / Republicans/ pro-choicers / pro-lifers / atheists / Christians / Muslims / New Church folks / Trads / francophones / anglophones / vegans / non-vegans / Standard American Diet eaters / formula feeders / lactivists / CIOers / bedsharers ... etc etc etc") and summarily dismissed? Can we not, rather, try on their views and experiences, whether through friendships or through literature, allowing those experiences to broaden our compassion and empathy?

I feel so strongly about this because in this reviewer's voice I hear myself at 16, 17, when I was a Baptist (a word I only started using after the fact, at the time I was, of course, a "Christian", refusing to recognize how my interpretations of ecclesiology, scripture and my own experiences were heavily shaped by my community's theological tradition), and I found comfort in retreating from my adolescent-paced broadening grasp of the at-times overwhelming complexity of the universe into the simple black-and-whiteness of my community's way of transferring belief into the way we dealt with people... there were unspoken (and probably spoken) formulae: you speak to unsaved people this way, to Catholics a special way, to pro-choice people a third way; they will try to argue with you in such and such a way, so while they talk, formulate your rebuttal rather than listen to them. You must be a witness to Christ by being an ambassador of the community, by conforming to the ways and means of the group, by insisting on how ecstatically happy you are, by admitting of no vulnerability, doubt or dissent.

Such a mentality can only thrive in small, small communities, with constant visibility and checks and "accountability". Becoming Catholic, being absorbed into the riotously huge, inconceivably global community of Catholicism freed two facets of my life that previously had had total overlap: personal religion, and community charism. I could go to a different church every weekend, if I wanted to. I could hang out at the cerebral Newman Center, I could keep up with my old church ladies at OLPH, or I could visit the Jerusalem Community, whose concept is living in the monastery of the city. All very different experiences, all strung together by the Creed and the basic structures. Nobody would blame me or harass me, in the urban reality of the church of Montreal this was all totally normal, healthy, socially accepted behaviour. By that point in my life I suppose I was more comfortable with the complexity of the universe, and more convinced of the need to hear peoples' stories and not be so locked onto a) the "good Christian listener being kind to the poor, needy unsaved person" dynamic, and b) listening to somebody in order to argue them to your perspective, to "win" them through intellectual force.

Being in the Daughters of Abraham book club, a few years into my Catholicism, opened new doors for me intellectually. I was skeptical at first of the intent of our chapter's foundress (now one of my closest friends!); I liked the book club concept but, as I explained to her, I'd been in inter-faith settings before that are advertised as dialogue-oriented in nature, but turned out to be either the host group's attempt to convert others (Baptists) or else a group of basically faithless, relativistic individuals trying to reinvent the Unitarian wheel, and neither option interested me. She assured me that she understood what I was referring to, and she really meant to have a proper inter-faith group, a true, respectful, person-to-person meeting of people of belief and conviction, and I was sold. The Montreal chapter has pretty much folded now (rest in peace!) but I learned great lessons about courage, vulnerability, friendship, and humility from that group of ladies.

So this is why that reviewer of The Doctor's Wife made me so irate. As I am perennially reminded, folks tend to get most angry at others' errors when they remind them of their own former errors. That's certainly the case for me, often. So go ahead and read this book, and let's talk about how to dwell in the gray together!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

daycare, diets and freedom

 I recently helped my dear friend Carolina by responding to an email interview for one of her child studies courses at Concordia; particularly, the interview focused on my parenting philosophy and my views on education. One question in particular was a pleasure to answer, my response to which I'll quote here, though it's a bit rough and slightly under-ripe - it has continually been on my mind. The question was "In general, how do you feel that the educational goals in Quebec/Canada compare with the educational goals of your own family?"

"I believe in what is sometimes called the "Platonic trinity" - I believe that truth, goodness and beauty spring from the same source, that one leads to the others, and that this is something we know innately, it needn't be taught. All creatures gravitate to beauty, light, and pleasure, from people to plants to bacteria: even on that crude biological level I believe there is a vast, infinite intelligence trying to teach us an important mystical truth. As such, our family highly values all three qualities, but we emphasize beauty, as it is perceptible on a sensory level, which is where children operate. We choose beautiful furniture, toys, music, etc. as often as possible, and good natural light is important to us. Frankly, many daycares are very ugly. They use a lot of plastic, are cluttered, are deeply branded, and overall fail to train a child's aesthetic sense, which I believe dulls the other spiritual senses. There is an almost gnostic glorification of theory, and there is lip-service paid to research, to educating the whole child, but it goes with a sense that how we concretize those values is arbitrary (so, it's gnostic in the sense of glorifying the spiritual/theoretical as opposed to the body/the concrete applications). On the contrary, I think all humans tap into the same divinity and yearn for the same truth, beauty and goodness; while there are many expressions of this there are basic spiritual foodgroups we all need to be nourished with: relational attachment, beauty of various kinds (music, vast outdoor spaces, the beauty of plants, the beauty of light and colour, the beauty of proportion and order, the beauty of poetry, etc), silence, and so on. I felt that most daycares I considered for my son would absolutely have choked him, he'd have starved for these things and perhaps in time his spiritual sensitivity would have diminished overall. It was not a gamble I was willing to take, and so he remains at home with me."

I have been fascinated with the idea of spiritual foodgroups since initially writing the above answer out. It fits, it really articulates what I think, and it feels wild and lonely and glorious. I jotted down a list, at greater length and detail, of what I think the spiritual foodgroups are:

- relational attachment
- silence
- visual beauty: vastness, sunlight, plants, animals, water, stars, fire
- music
- poetry
- communal worship (ritualized praise celebrations of divinity itself, or in thanksgiving for gifts from the divine)
- ecology: living with knowledge of and in harmony with one's environment, nurturing a healthy symbiosis (working the soil, gathering wild herbs or other plants, respectfully keeping animals, etc.)

I think these needs transcend culture, and I think city living tends to starve us of some of these, and I also think that people who are professedly religious grow totally complacent about these needs of natural religion (but no less real, dignified, or truly in touch with the divine) - these are the people that grow cold, who can quote sacred writings at length but find themselves with midlife faith crises.

I keep reading this list over and over to myself, and it seems like magic, like a talisman; it seems like a secret, it seems somehow rebellious to posit spiritual needs outside of what modern religious folks would generally posit as the essentials of one's spiritual diet (Rosary, Mass, lots of kids; Mark Shea, Conversion Diary; Padre Pio holy card; be nice to your parents, pray twice a day, fast when required, and maybe, as an afterthought, "take care of yourself" in some half-blushing, uncertain way). And it is a delicious rebellion; I don't want to debate or get aggressive about it, but in the intimacy of my own home it reigns - it has, in fact, for a long time. This is a non-negotiable aspect of our Catholicism, me and Tony's; we are co-accomplices in this vision and it's a delight.

I am aware both that this vision isn't widely shared, and also that I long for a slightly wider community in which this vision could take flesh. But I have a certain peace; life in general doesn't seem to ever go quite as we hope or plan, but having drawn up the various strands of my vision of early life education means it is easier to admire, improve, and defend. I am confident that whatever ends up happening, we are equipped and empowered to craft a life that is beautiful, and spiritually nourishing.

P.S. Ambrose started a great, beautiful, fun daycare that we adore, based on multi-culturalism, outdoor time, art, music, and physical play - they even garden! - in August 2013. His routine there has brought all of us to the next level of thriving! I get so much more physical and emotional space for dreaming and growing now, it's truly brilliant. If your two and a half to five year old needs an amazing preschool in the Verdun area, drop me a line!